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Odysseus and Achilles

Three of the great Achaeans in the war effort come to Achilles in Book Nine of The Iliad. Each attempts to convince the great hero to rejoin the war effort. First to speak is Odysseus. Known as an eloquent speaker and a clever man, it is surprising that Odysseus fails to sway Achilles back into the fight. His speech is centered on the gifts that Agamemnon would offer Achilles; an interesting approach considering Agamemnon hurt Achilles by taking away a prize he loved. Failing to persuade Achilles, the conversation shows a different side to Achilles’ character that had not yet been illustrated.

    During Odysseus’ speech a certain idea of war is conveyed. Odysseus spends more time describing to Achilles the gifts that await him should he rejoin the war effort than the current state of the war. What he does describe to Achilles concerning the war is described in dire terms. Odysseus plays to Achilles’ ego in his speech, making it clear that their forces are no match for the Trojans without him. He plays to Achilles’ ego with statements such as, “all hangs in the balance now…unless, of course, you put your fighting power in harness” (9.279). Odysseus also describes Achilles as “bred by the gods” (9.275) while the rest of the war effort is described as afraid and lesser than the raging Trojans. He even alludes to the fact that Achilles may be the only one who can stop Hector when he says that Hector does not fear “man or god” (9.288). Achilles being half man and half god means he would not be classified under what Hector may fear. Instead it would seem that Achilles would be a type of being between the two. The opening paragraph of this speech in itself seems focused on showing Achilles how weak the Achaeans are without him and to try and gain his sympathy.

As his speech develops, Odysseus goes on to make promises from Agamemnon as to the prizes and rewards that Achilles will gain should he choose to rejoin the fight. It is interesting to see Odysseus trying to entice Achilles with promises of spoils more than promises of great fights. He spends most of his speech detailing to Achilles the pleasures that will be bestowed him when he rejoins the war effort and much less time detailing how the army will “honor [him] like a god” (9.366). However, in previous passages Achilles has been depicted mostly as a fighter obsessed with glory. Perhaps Odysseus has misread Achilles’ intentions or perhaps he is trying to draw Achilles’ attention away from the prize he has already lost to Agamemnon in order to regain his allegiance. The picture of the war effort here being that the whole success of the Achaean army depends on the intentions of one man. Odysseus’ speech also sheds light onto the type of soldier that Achilles is assumed to be; such that he could be easily persuaded by material spoils more than promises of glory.

Achilles immediately responds to Odysseus’ speech with his thoughts on the bribes that Agamemnon offered versus the glory of war. Achilles seems to deeply disagree with the manner by which the war has been raged so far. Making it clear that he does not believe in a united war effort. Instead, in comparison to his involvement in supporting the war effort, he seems to compare himself to a mother bird nursing her young, “like a mother bird hurrying morsels back to her unfledged young…it’s all starvation wages for herself” (9.392). Achilles also argues that since glory seems no different for men in battle versus for men that stay in the camp, there is really no reason why he should return to the fight. In his speech, what is important to Achilles most in war becomes clear; independent glory. Achilles continues on to explain why he would deny the gifts Odysseus offered him from Agamemnon. His tone seems to be that of one who has been emotionally defeated as he talks about the one thing that he does care about, a woman. “I loved that woman with all my heart…But now that he’s torn my honor from my hands…don’t let him try me now” (9.415). It seems as though the most offensive part of Odysseus’ speech to Achilles was Agamemnon’s idea that he could simply replace one meaningful trophy with various other offerings. It seems as though Agamemnon assumed Achilles was still the same man that entered the war; a man with the true nature of a soldier. However with the addition of Achilles’ account here it seems as though Briseis may have changed his nature more than Agamemnon thought.

Comparing this point in Book Nine with the original event in Book One reveals what the moment Briseis was taken from Achilles actually meant to his development as a fighter and as a man. In Book Nine, Achilles is emotionally wounded and has no desire to continue to fight for the forces that took his greatest prize away, a woman he loved. In Book One, Achilles is counseling Agamemnon to do just that, give up a prize of a woman he loves. Here, it seems to be a war tactic, since Apollo would be appeased if the woman that Agamemnon loves is returned to the Trojans. However, Agamemnon foolishly pushes Achilles to a breaking point. Both men are unwilling to part with the prizes they love most. So, Agamemnon sends his men for Briseis, Achilles’ prize. Achilles allows her to leave with what seems like a warning, “But let them both bear witness to my loss…if the day should come when the armies need me to save their ranks from ignominious, stark defeat” (1.400). It seems as though Achilles is warning that this action by Agamemnon will come back into importance later in the war. He realizes that he is the best of Achaeans but with no direct wrong to avenge against the Trojans. Therefore, even though “day after day he ground his heart out…yearning, always yearning for battle cries and combat,” (1.585) he has no great reason to rejoin the fight. He makes very clear in Book Nine that this also includes not for any other prize offered by Agamemnon other than the one that could undo the wrong done to him in the first place, the return of Briseis.

In the grand scheme of the the Trojan War, a war essentially fought over the loss of a woman and consequently of honor, it is interesting to see this sideline story concerning a very similar storyline unfold for Achilles and Agamemnon. This seems to have a lot to say for the general nature of men.  Perhaps war changes the intentions of men. What seemed initially a pursuit to regain honor for one may have also spread into a need to regain honor for multiple men. Perhaps that is how Achilles has been affected from the loss of Briseis, he becomes more concerned with his honor than the empty brutality of war.

22 Responses to “Odysseus and Achilles”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Brieanah,

    I think this is a solid analysis of Odysseus’ speech to Achilles in Book 9. I think more could have been said about how Odysseus changes Agamemnon’s proposed speech, but you make some interesting points on different issues, so fair enough.

    I like the point about Achilles being in-between man and god rather than both a man and a god. This suggests that heroes, while perhaps more powerful than “mere” mortals, differ in ways that are not simply related to power. Their very being is different. I think this is a neat point and may suggest ways in which we can interpret the various other heroes who have divine lineage (e.g., Aeneas) as being different from their fellows.

    I think you are right to suggest that Briseis has changed Achilles somehow. Surely he has had war prizes before; surely these have included women. And yet Briseis becomes the focus of a huge controversy. I have suggested before that perhaps Achilles is comfortable receiving less than his due (as a fighter) as long as he got to keep what he earned. When he loses that, he loses the plot, so to speak. But I also think that you are right to suggest that this particular woman is different from the others and has changed him. He does say he loves her, for instance (9.415), and she leaves his tent unwillingly (1.412). She even cared deeply for Patroclus and mourns his body. There is no reason to suggest that she was not happy with Achilles.

    So–do we see with Achilles a sullen hero who has withdrawn from battle? A hero who has forsaken the system of glory that the Greeks buy into? Something else entirely? Odysseus certainly seems to misunderstand this new Achilles…

    KH

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